Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Leicester fall just short of vital three points in 2-2 draw with West Brom

LEICESTER, England -- Here are three quick thoughts from Leicester City's 2-2 Premier League draw with West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday at the King Power Stadium.
1. Leicester fall just short
Nights such as this happen to the best of them. Leicester could hardly have done more to win this match, and it is barely believable that an unambitious West Brom, whose approach did little to stem tide after tide of home attacks, finished on level pegging here.
The chances came and went in numbers during the second half on a rare off-night for Jamie Vardy & Co., and it remains to be seen how much Leicester's profligacy -- and the wonderfully flighted Craig Gardner free kick five minutes after halftime that leveled matters for West Brom -- impacts a title race whose next turn is anybody's guess.
Much as this feels like two points dropped for the Foxes, the portents were even bleaker 11 minutes in. The opening goal, from West Brom's first attack of the game, was intelligently conceived. Darren Fletcher's side-rule pass to the left of Robert Huth clinically exposed the centre-back's weakness on that side, and his sluggishness on the turn allowed Salomon Rondon to brush him off the ball -- no mean feat -- and slot under Kasper Schmeichel.
Much of Leicester's success earlier in the season stemmed from an ability to turn deficits into victories -- their 3-2 win at the Hawthorns among them. But expectations have risen, and there was a nervousness around the King Power Stadium before Drinkwater's leveler. Passes were rushed out of play, and the sense was that Leicester's characteristic energy was being channeled into forcing the issue through haste.

The equaliser, a harmless-looking shot on the half-hour mark that flicked off Jonas Olsson and gave Ben Foster no chance, came after a renewed spell of pressure that saw Vardy head a presentable chance straight at the West Brom keeper. Leicester had rediscovered their energy, and for the rest of the first half, belief coursed through them. Vardy, located by a chipped cross from Drinkwater, thudded another header against the crossbar before, just before the whistle, they took the lead with what was a stunning goal, even by this season's standards.
A Drinkwater switch from left to right was met on the volley by a cushioned back-heel by Riyad Mahrez into the path of Andy King. It was a masterful piece of improvisation, and Leicester seemed set to win convincingly from there.
It was Mahrez, though, who handled the free kick from which Gardner, out of the blue, restored parity. Leicester battered West Brom after that, with Shinji Okazaki clipping the bar with a free header of his own, Vardy robbing Gareth McAuley before seeing Foster save with his legs and Wes Morgan, four minutes from time, seeing the keeper stop his shot right in front of goal.
When Mahrez, in stoppage time, shot wildly over with an attempted bicycle kick as teammates queued up for a header across the 6-yard box, you knew it would not be Leicester's day. But as a nonetheless appreciative home crowd cheered them off the pitch, you still sensed they would have plenty more.
2. Kante's absence isn't all bad news for Foxes
Anybody heard claiming that Leicester would be better off without N'Golo Kante for this fixture would rightly have been dismissed as a fantasist. The midfielder's high-octane contribution to the club's rise is common knowledge now, but this did not seem the worst game for him to miss. It was clear from the outset that West Brom would look to cede possession against a team that has generally been happy to do exactly that; there would be fewer balls to win back, and perhaps the need for someone as sharp to the tackle as Kante was less than on a typical Premier League afternoon.
Kante's replacement, King, is a handy technician, and that suited the pattern of this game. He kept the ball moving neatly, and the manner of his goal was no surprise to anyone who has followed the Leicester academy product's career. The strike, his 59th for the club, was wonderfully set up by Mahrez, but King's late run into the box was timed to perfection, and the finish, wrapped high across Foster, was unerring.

There is always a flip side.
At 2-1, it seemed unimportant that nobody had properly closed down Darren Fletcher as he picked his pass for Rondon during a rare spell of constructive West Brom possession. But it seems like the kind of move Kante might have stopped at the source or at least delayed by snapping at the passer's heels.
The intensity of Leicester's overall performance showed no evidence that one of their talismen had been missed. They would have won this game comfortably on another day, but they will still need him back for the tests that lie ahead.
3. Pulis' West Brom ride their luck again
Tony Pulis might well have written the manual for occasions such as this. The West Brom manager will have noted how Norwich kept Leicester at arm's length for long periods of their meeting on Saturday but did not need a helping hand.
His side set up primarily to frustrate, much as they did at Everton in February, when they rode their luck to a 1-0 win. Gardner, Fletcher and Claudio Yacob formed a hardworking midfield three, with Gardner working particularly assiduously to help left-back James Chester -- usually a central defender -- fend off the threat of Mahrez.

Incursions into the Leicester half were limited; the plan was to retain the shape and hit a direct front trio of Rondon, Saido Berahino and Stephane Sessegnon whenever Leicester committed themselves. It worked perfectly for Rondon's goal, and the pattern of the game might have been different if Drinkwater's effort had not flown in, though West Brom had arguably sat too deep as Leicester worked a short corner out to him.
Instead of bemoaning bad luck, West Brom made their own. Leicester missed a succession of second-half chances, but Gardner's equaliser was an outstanding piece of quality, and the visitors found spaces of their own as the game became stretched. Rondon scooped over from a matter of feet from McAuley's drilled low ball in the 66th minute, and Gardner was not far away, with two more long-range drives.
In the final minutes, as a dogged West Brom backline lunged, stretched, tackled, blocked and held hearts in their mouths as balls flew across their penalty area, it seemed they could not possibly hold on. But nobody should have doubted them. Pulis, of all people, has worked to this script with great success many times before.

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